CHAMPAIGN — Journalists are taught to be wary and question what is reported to us as fact. Call us cynics, but that's the way it needs to be.
Tell us something and we want verification that it is more than an opinion.
When a young reporter — which I was when I first started interviewing Tom Stewart in the 1970s — would hear the things he had to say, red flags were raised immediately.
The former Central High School football coach, who passed away Sunday at 86, would talk in detail about games he had coached. He'd run through the series with Urbana, recounting the final scores, the players who scored, which games were played in rainy conditions, which play he ran to start the game, and other details as if the games had been played the previous day.
In 1983, Stewart's final year coaching the Maroons, he'd sit in the crow's nest at the McKinley practice field and recall details of contests from the mid-1950s.
OK, I admit it, I had my doubts. I wondered if someone really had scored in such-and-such a game on a 67-yard reverse or whatever it was he mentioned.
So I checked. I spent time reviewing microfilm to see what actually happened in those games. I learned Tom Stewart was a person you could trust.
His memory and recall was truly infallible.
In 2007 we sat in his living room a few weeks before the Illini were to play in the Rose Bowl. He talked about the Rose Bowl game in which he had played 61 years earlier, a game the Illini thumped a previously unbeaten UCLA squad.
From the details that Stewart recalled without hesitation, you'd swear the game took place last week, or at most, last year.
Avoiding the spotlight
There are so many sides to Tom Stewart that the public never saw. He wanted it that way.
When those of us in the media would try to do profile stories on him and encourage him to talk about the accomplishments that earned him a place in the state football coaches association Hall of Fame, Stewart attempted to turn the direction of the story.
"Don't make it about me," he said. "It's about the kids."
When we'd take a different approach and interview former players about their memories and recollections of Stewart, the office phone would ring within a day or two of the publication. The voice on the other end was Stewart's.
He wanted extra copies, but it wasn't a vanity thing or to add to a scrapbook.
"I want to mail copies to the guys who live out of town and might not have seen it," Stewart said.
A detail man
Stewart insisted on handling details that many football coaches would pass off to assistants or simply not deal with at all.
Distributing equipment at Central didn't mean telling players to check in the supply room and pick out some pads and a helmet. It meant being personally fitted by head coach Stewart, who made certain that all equipment was adjusted properly.
If a player didn't have the proper shoes — or the money for shoes — Stewart took care of it.
"He wasn't paid for that but figured that was part of his job," said Lee Cabutti, who coached football with Stewart for 11 years and then became the school's athletic director.
During Cabutti's tenure on the staff, a preseason kickoff dinner was held where coaches, players and their families gathered. This was during a time the Champaign roster at all levels was between 120 and 140 players.
"Tommy introduced every kid by name, even the freshmen he'd just met a couple weeks earlier," Cabutti said.
He did it by memory, not with the aid of cue cards or notes.
For decades, Saturday mornings during the football season meant Stewart would be at a local Laundromat, washing the players' jerseys and pants.
Though he wasn't a part owner of the establishment, he was given a key so he could start early and finish before the crowds arrived.
During the four years that Mike Babcock covered the Central football teams in the 1970s, the former Champaign-Urbana Courier sports writer would routinely join Stewart to get information for a postgame followup.
"Once, the alarm went off for some reason," Babcock said, "and we had to explain to a police officer why we were there. Obviously, burglars don't break into a Laundromat to do laundry."
Babcock, who now lives in Lincoln, Neb., said he'd join Stewart even when he didn't need material for an article.
"Initially I went for the express purpose of getting comments for a story," Babcock said. "Before long, I went just because I enjoyed listening to Tom's stories and life insights, sort of like what it would have been to play for him, I suppose."
Machines were eventually installed at the McKinley practice facility on New Street. Stewart no longer had to spend his money on the wash, though he continued to handle that duty until he retired.
Stewart and Cabutti teamed up, Cabutti said, for 28 years at lunchtime. "We were the cafeteria policemen," he said.
Former Carle administrator Bruce Carroll was a personal friend who made infrequent stops to talk during the noon hour.
"You never saw such a well-behaved student body," Carroll said, "because they respected them. Tommy was one of the greatest men I've ever known. I cherish the times we visited."
Former Central quarterback Bill Stahl — who set school passing records before graduating in 1975 — said Stewart was the same person in the cafeteria as he was on the football field.
"I remember him walking the cafeteria helping pick up tables at lunch, and I would see the same type of work ethic then as I would see on the football field," said Stahl, who lives in Gurnee. "I learned a lot from him in a short period of time. The fact I remember and apply it means a job well done."
Point of emphasis
A Stewart favorite was to finish a sentence by repeating what he considered the most important part of his comment.
Babcock found an example in the final story he wrote about Stewart and Central football in 1977.
"It began," Babcock said, "with a quote that said a lot about Tom. 'Every year you've got 55 guys, human beings with thoughts and feelings, and you're constantly learning and adjusting all the time ... all the time,' " Stewart was quoted.
Say it ain't so
When I received the call at home Sunday night informing me of Stewart's passing, the reporter in me said, "Check this out." This was a time I fervently hoped the source was wrong.
Cabutti had visited Stewart on Thursday at a nursing home — one of the dozens who'd stopped by in recent months — and left, he said, "with tears in my eyes. My wife asked what was wrong and I told her, 'I think I saw Tom for the last time.' "
Their decades-long association left the former basketball coach with a distinct memory: "Tom was one of a kind," Cabutti said.
And, the last chapter — like the others in the Tom Stewart Story — was true.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by fax at 217-373-7401, by phone at 217-351-5232 or at email@example.com.
Hall of Fame numbers
Tom Stewart was the head football coach in two high school districts, covering 301 varsity games and 33 seasons. His tenure:
YEARS SCHOOL RECORD
1950-52 Bement 8-9-1
1953-67 Champaign 95-21-6
1967-84 Central 104-53-4
33-year total 207-83-11